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“Only 22%” Political Blog Readership Is Pretty Good…

In the post below David D. Perlmutter, a professor in the KU School of Journalism & Mass Communications, and author of Blogwars, refutes the idea that political blog readership is low as reported in the mainstream news. What do you think? Are political blogs affecting this election?

Newspaper headlines, especially describing social surveys, often are matters of “glass half empty or half full” opinion. Here’s a major example of the last couple of weeks: a Harris Interactive survey conducted between January 15 to January 22 of 2,302 adults found that “Just under one-quarter (23%) say that they read them several times a year and just 22 percent of Americans read blogs regularly (several times a month or more).” Almost always when the story was picked up the headline was some version of the way it appeared on the Reuters wire: “Poll: Most Americans don’t read political blogs.” Harris themselves headlined their survey as “More Than Half of Americans Never Read Political Blogs.

9780195305579.jpgI would recast the findings as: “Nearly Half of Americans Read Political Blogs.” It’s a sign of how far blogs in general and political blogs in particular have come that 22% (or half!) of Americans seeking political information is classified under the modifier “only.” Considering that blogs have come, within the last decade, from complete obscurity to central players in the political process that’s a pretty respectable number. But it does reflect a big issue about political blogs that I’m often asked by journalists interviewing me and by political consultants who are trying to recast their businesses around the new world of social interactive media that blogs heralded as early as the 2004 election campaign for president of Howard Dean. The issues is about bloggers, that is people who create and edit blogs, not just their readers, but the point applies.

Some background: In the summer of 2005 I wrote a short editorial piece, “Will blogs go bust?” [pdf link] for Editor & Publisher, which is the trade magazine of the print news industry. My title was provocative and I was being a little bit facetious. First, although by that time ranking systems and services were saying that they were at least tens of millions of people blogging all over the world it was clear that there had to be some peak. Second, there was a huge rise in blogs that weren’t really blogs at all. These included fake or spam blogs (I have to regularly clean out the citation sections of my own blogs from all the helpful spammers who have latched onto posts by referencing them so as to hawk Viagra). Next, I was concerned about the rise of the corporate blog. Perhaps “concerned” is too strong a word. Blogging is a useful device for political candidates as well as, say, Oxford University Press, but I didn’t want the spontaneity and the interactivity and the sense of unguardedness that made blogging so interesting to disappear and blogs to turn into essentially calculated online press releases.

I also understood that, as I have put it, “peasants don’t blog” or “bloggers are not the ‘people.’” Overwhelmingly the profile of bloggers and blog consumers depicts them as middle-class folk in America (or Nigeria or Iran). In the U.S. they tend to be more white, more educated, more literate and have more money than a profile of people who don’t blog.

Then there are a lot of other discouraging factors to blogging as I found myself. First, you open yourself up to a lot of hate mail from “trolls.” Most people are not very rhino-hided about being attacked via comments or email and figure why bother? Indeed, blog orphaning is a significant phenomenon: many blogs die within their first year. The work load is another factor. Newspaper columnists complain about the hardships of coming up with one to two columns a week: bloggers have to do that every day to keep an audience. Expenses can add up, too: Blogging is pretty cheap, especially if you use a free program like BLOGGER, but that does not figure in time costs. I recall interviewing a blogger early on in my studies and asking him how much it cost to write his blog. He replied, only half jokingly, about $100,000 a year, which broke down to less than $100 for the actual blog and many thousands of dollars for his lost time not devoted to his business. He blogged anyway out of passion but how many people have that kind of freedom of choice and focus of purpose to blog?

One other phenomenon is at work to cap the number of blog readers and writers: there are now many, many more outlets for interactive media, from pod casting to MySpace to face book (which are sorts of blogs anyway). So while there will always be a certain limit on the number of people who want to spend time online interacting with others about politics or cats, that so many actually do is significant and there is nothing “only” about it.

Last, in politics sheer numbers are not necessarily significant. For example, some of the caucus states “won” by Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton or John McCain involved only a few thousand people out of millions. To expand upon what I write in BLOGWARS: “Even if blogs are not vox populi, it does not follow that, as blog critics love to taunt, bloggers (and blog readers) are the tinfoil hatters of American political life. To the contrary, bloggers and their audience may not be the people, but there is growing evidence that they have an extraordinary and extraproportional effect on the people and on politics, campaigns and elections, public affairs, policymaking, press agendas and coverage, and public opinion.” In fact, I claim that bloggers are influentials, people who speak up about politics, give money, get involved in campaigns, and vote. That is their profile according to my own research and that of others: they may not be the majority but the influential minority matters. The same applies to those who peruse polblogs.

So even if only 20% of Americans read blogs, I will predict that those are a group of people (a target segment in the language of marketing) that any political candidate will be very happy to reach.

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